Q: ‘How can I be right with God?’ A: ‘It’s debatable’!!!
Edited by James K. Beilby & Paul R. Eddy
SPCK. 319 pages. £15.99
ISBN 978 0 281 067 343
This is the latest volume on controversial matters in Christian thought to be edited by Beilby and Eddy, colleagues in the Biblical and Theological Studies department of Bethel University, St. Paul, Minnesota.
The inclusion of Justification in such a series needs no explanation. In the 16th and 17th centuries, there was strong and costly disagreement over it which has surfaced again of late. The words that follow the noun ‘Justification’ in the title make this clear. Not only do we not have ‘by faith alone’. We do not even have ‘by faith’! Instead we have ‘five views’.
Part 1 contains two essays by the editors and another colleague, entitled ‘Justification in Historical Perspective’ and ‘Justification in Contemporary Debate’. Alister McGrath regards these as giving no better ‘introduction to these important debates’. Five ‘flash points’ in current exchanges are flagged up in the latter. They are: Paul’s attitude toward Judaism; the Role of Works in the Final Justification / Judgment; Justification / Righteousness in the Old Testament; Justifying Righteousness: Imputation, Transformation, Incorporation?; and the Meaning of Pistis (faith).
Part 2 of the book contains the ‘five views’ of the title. Each is expounded by a notable advocate(s) and then responded to by the other contributors. The result resembles a lively round-table discussion on each view. The material is well footnoted and completed by author-subject and biblical indices. This book is a good place to begin any serious consideration of the subject.
The first and last essays present the traditional Reformed and Roman Catholic positions. Historically these were in explicit opposition to each other, but much of the antagonism has abated due to ecumenical consultations. Thankfully, there is still clear water between them in these pages.
Michael Horton strikes all the distinctive notes of the Reformed standpoint. He maintains that justification is a divine declaration of ‘Not Guilty’ with respect to the sinner who trusts in the death of Jesus Christ and that such acceptance before God’s bar is based on the imputation of Christ’s righteousness. He interacts with differing views in the scholarly world and relates sola fide to the other blessings of the covenant of grace, all of which are embraced in union with Christ.
Oliver Rafferty and Gerald O’Collins are the Roman Catholic contributors. The former welcomes the various rapprochements that rode the wave after Vatican II, but he affirms that the Greek verb dikaioo means ‘to make righteous’ rather than ‘to declare righteous’ and that this process is begun at baptism. He denies that personal guilt can be transferred and that Christ’s death was penal (128-130). O’Collins provides an historical survey of the doctrine, but his comments on the Council of Trent fail to deal with its explicit anathemas against sola fide. While they stand unrevoked, can there be a truly fraternal discussion of what the Bible teaches about justification? Furthermore, if justification is not a legal declaration, if guilt cannot be transferred and if another cannot be made liable for it, what is there really to talk about?
The other essays are written by non-Roman Catholic scholars, namely Michael Bird, James Dunn and Veli-Matti Karkkainen. Placed between the views just mentioned, and termed Progressive Reformed, New Perspective and Deification respectively, they invite consideration as to how each of them relates to the two poles of the argument.
Confessions and exegesis
Both Bird and Dunn locate themselves in the Reformed tradition, the former more explicitly than the latter, but they agree that confessional documents have been given too influential a place in the exegetical process. Dunn sums up this claim by saying: ‘The logic of dogma should always bow the knee to exegesis’ (p.119).
On this point, it is worth recalling that the confessional statements were based on exegesis of texts of Scripture and that the contemporary biblical scholar’s impatience with them is related to a commitment to a significantly different hermeneutic from the one adopted in the 16th and 17th centuries, as is acknowledged in Part 1 (p.82).
Bird deals well with faith and works in James 2, but he comes up with two exegetical surprises. First, he identifies ‘the Gentiles who have not the law’ in Romans 2.13 as being Christian Gentiles in spite of the context indicating that no one keeps the law, neither Gentiles nor Jews. Secondly, he renders the one verb in 2 Corinthians 5:17 by two different words, namely ‘being made’ and ‘becoming’, the former with regard to Christ’s death and the latter the believer’s acceptance. Just as it would be dangerous to say that Christ ‘became sin’, so it is dangerous to say that the believer ‘becomes righteous’. ‘Made’ is a better and safer translation of the verb in both parts of that familiar and important verse.
But how is Christ ‘made sin’ and the believer ‘made the righteousness of God in him’? Bird is neither satisfied with N.T. Wright’s view that ‘union with Christ’ provides a satisfactory answer nor with the historic explanation that each happened by way of divine imputation — the great exchange. He maintains that there is no verse that teaches imputation of Christ’s righteousness, although he admits that such a thought is a ‘necessary implicate of biblical materials’ (p.151). Instead he favours a participatory understanding which removes a firewall between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism and leaves the question unanswered.
Dunn addresses ‘The New Perspective’ — or, rather, what he calls his version of it. By ‘new’ he does not mean that the ‘old’ is being replaced, only that elements in Pauline thought about Justification that had received insufficient emphasis were being emphasised. Paul’s teaching about Judaism and his missionary activity to the Gentiles are those underplayed elements which he majors on. But he thinks of covenant only in terms of grace, of Israel (and not the remnant) as being on the same plane as the church, and he overlooks the state of man in sin. All of these are Pauline emphases too — and of immense significance in connection with justification. But he deals with the popular notion that pistis tou christou means ‘the faith(fulness) of Christ’ rather than ‘faith in Christ’ most effectively.
Karkkainen teaches Systematic Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary. He is very prominent in the Ecumenical Movement. In his essay he deals with Luther and, therefore, with the Reformation. But his read on Luther is very selective, for he concentrates on justification as being inwardly transformative in line with the teaching of Mannermaa in Helsinki. This interpretation, which would have caused no difficulty in the 16th century and therefore fails as an explanation of the Reformation, has not surprisingly resulted in a bridge being built with Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism. Karkkainen even entertains a possibility of relations with non-Christian religions.
Consensus against faith alone
Despite the differences about justification that are expressed in this symposium something of a consensus does emerge — and it is one that works against the distinctiveness of justification by faith alone! In 1986 McGrath warned that ‘ecumenical interests’ were ‘an important contributing factor to its [i.e. justification] quiet marginalisation’ (p.52). There is now a determination not to distinguish justification from other Christian (Pauline) doctrines and not to emphasise it. Only Horton is prepared to put it under a microscope before using the wide angle lens in his consideration of the subject.
But is it not proper to consider justification by itself before connecting it with a raft of other doctrines — and is there not need to do so?
Romans 4.5 & Ephesians 2.8-9
In their Preface the editors acknowledge that ‘for most Christians a lot is riding on this conversation’. Why only ‘most’? Is justification not an important matter for all? If it is not, then what assurance of salvation can be possessed? And what about the non-Christian who wants to know how to find peace with God? ‘How can a man be just before God’ is not an outdated question. A simple answer to it is needed and it is provided in Scripture. It is that ‘God justifies the ungodly’ and ‘by grace are you saved through faith and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast’.
Hywel R. Jones, PhD,
Professor of Practical Theology, Westminster Seminary, California, USA;
member of Cwmavon Evangelical Church, Port Talbot, Wales